The head of the Catholic Church and the symbolic leader of the Eastern Orthodox church may be headed to Greece as early as next week, on a trip that would signal support for migrants and refugees in that country.
A visit by Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I was announced by church and government officials in Greece, NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli reports; they said the trip would happen late next week.
But the church leaders say the details are still being worked out. The ecumenical patriarch’s website says the two leaders will visit the island of Lesbos “in the near future.” The Vatican said “a definitive decision on the trip, the venue and date are yet to be made,” Sylvia reports.
Both religious leaders have recently drawn attention to the plight of migrants and refugees.
“The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has spoken out forcefully about the need for Europe to open its doors and heart to people fleeing persecution and poverty,” Sylvia says.
The pontiff has been an outspoken critic of a recent deal between the EU and Turkey to deport migrants who arrive in Greece back to Turkey. That agreement went into effect this week, with more than 200 people deported from Greek islands.
The pope washed and kissed the feet of asylum-seeking refugees outside Rome on Holy Thursday, leading up to Easter.
The ecumenical patriarch, known as the “first among equals” among the leaders of the Orthodox church, held a prayer vigil for refugees in November and dedicated his Christmas proclamation in 2015 to the state of refugees. He said that Jesus was a “political refugee” in his time and called those who persecute refugees “modern-day Herods,” a reference to the king who, according to the Bible, ordered the death of every male infant in Bethlehem.
Lesbos has been named by the Orthodox church as the destination for the church leaders, and Joanna Kakissis, reporting for NPR from Athens, says it’s a logical destination: it’s where hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees arrived last year, and where many of those currently facing deportation are located.
Joanna just returned from a trip to Lesbos, and described the conditions there on Morning Edition:
“The migrant camp on Lesbos is basically a prison. At least 3,000 people are held in a former army barracks behind this tall wrought-iron fence. Greek police have orders from the government to chase away any journalists who talk to refugees even through that fence.
“I did manage to talk to a couple of people including a young woman from Syria … who actually wants to be a journalist. She says the camp is crowded and scary, that there’s not enough food and people were sleeping outside. She’s seen fights break out, she’s heard people talking about hurting themselves — this is just not a safe place, she says.”
“I’ve been sending her text messages this morning about the pope and she says, ‘I would love to meet him.’ “
A visit by the pope and the ecumenical patriarch would be “a huge statement of empathy toward refugees,” Joanna says — and an embarrassment for the EU and Turkish leaders who made the widely criticized plan for deporting new arrivals to Turkey.